A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend my first in-person association meeting since November of 2019. It was a face-to-face-only conference with no virtual component except for a single keynote speaker. To say that the mood was electric would not do it justice.
To give you a better understanding of the background, here’s a quick look into our history with events over the past two years. This association’s fall 2019 meeting set an attendance record. In March 2020, our meeting was canceled three days before the event as COVID-19 caused a global shutdown. Out of an abundance of caution for the members of the association, the fall 2020 meeting was also canceled. Next, we lost spring 2021 as it was decided March was going to be too early for members to feel comfortable – even with vaccines rolling out.
In January 2021, the board of directors discussed the pros and cons of standing up a meeting in May. If we did it, we would be the first organization in this industry sector to hold an in-person event. If we didn’t do it, the September meeting would be the first meeting for this association in two years.
But what about May? In January, the vaccines were just becoming more readily available. But even two shots 30 days apart could get someone ready by May, right? That is when the board authorized us to conduct a site search for enough rooms for a face-to-face meeting expecting to get one-quarter of our regular audience. We might lose a little money, but the association needed to meet to accomplish its mission.
To assure the members that safety was the first and foremost concern, we committed to following CDC, state, and hotel guidance on masks, distancing, and disinfecting. We even planned for three colors of lanyards for attendees – Red, respect my six feet; Yellow, I am OK to talk; and White, I am happy to fist bump.
Our first sign that we were on a good path was when registration opened and our room block sold out in less than three weeks. We picked up a second block at a sister property but ultimately had to cap attendance at about 60% of normal full attendance to accommodate six-foot seating in the main ballroom. We had a waitlist that would have brought us in at just about normal attendance had we had the space.
Then there was the response by the attendees on-site. They were so very happy to be at a meeting. Every single attendee selected a white lanyard. Hands were shaken. Backs were slapped. Faces were brought close for the occasional photo. One comment we heard the most was “it has been so long since I traveled, I forgot how to pack!”
Now here is the case for optimism for face-to-face association meetings in Q3 and Q4 of 2021. We opened registration for this association’s fall (September) meeting during this meeting. Within two hours of opening, 40% of our projected attendance was already registered. By the next day, we stood at 60%. And by the end of the week, we were looking at 75%.
Sure, you can call this anecdotal, but this is one association professional who is feeling very, very optimistic that our associations are going to come roaring back. Hand me a white lanyard, please.